Equity in Action: An Educator's View on Learning, Teaching, and Leading

Equity in Action: An Educator's View on Learning, Teaching, and Leading

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Somebody’s Somebody

I smiled to myself because of similar June experiences in three other districts. There I was in a high school library breathing in stagnant air that only an educator or former prisoner-of-war could comprehend. District office representation, principals, and administrative interns were gathered for the end-or-the-year Principal Academy, as no fewer than seven fans buzzed to draw in fresh air through open doors.  Over 70 of us, seated around circular tables, basked in the knowledge that the school-year was coming to a close, as only state reports, final evaluations, and administrative check-outs remained. Informal conversation topics included how few open positions remained in each building and upcoming vacation destinations.  The smiles came easy as we broke bread tortillas with one another and enjoyed the coma inducing “lightness” of catered Mexican food.  

The line-item agendas on each table included time to address the “big rocks” (initiatives) for the coming year, professional learning structures for administrators, and a plan to address House Bill 1240. We were ready to begin as Principal Kim stood to introduce a young lady in attendance. What happen next would trump any professional learning that would take place over the next three hours.

The former student from Principal Kim’s elementary school took the microphone and sang beautifully.  Her emotion, the power of her voice, and the words of the song touched our hearts and brought tears to the eyes of many. After finishing, the student looked at the ground and stated, “I’m a very shy person, but I know that Ms. Kim loves me. She pushes me...she believes in me, and now I believe in myself.” She then went on to share her dreams and the goals for her future and thanked "Ms. Kim" for her love and support. 

The moment reminded me that, while we can’t choose which small act or moment may alter the life of a student, we can be cognizant of our words and actions. I believe the words of that statement and know that the best way to interact with students is to follow the counsel of Lakeside High School football coach, Frank Hall, who stated the following:

“Every kid is someone’s pride and joy, or wants to be someone’s pride and joy, and it’s my responsibility to be that someone for him. I keep thinking, How would I want my kid to be treated?—and then I treat ‘em that way.”

Coach Hall's words affirm those of John C. Maxwell, who professed, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  
That self-proclaimed "timid" student in a sweltering high school library reaffirmed to me that personal connections are paramount in all that we do.   We can agonize over test scores, senate bills, and instruction; however, positive relationships are the catalyst for improvement.  Every day we make a difference, as our interactions with students can be positive and lasting, indifferent and forgettable, or negative and damaging.  Every day we can be somebody's somebody.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Place To Be

“What would make you want to live and work in Burien?”

This off-script question was asked as I sat in on an interview conducted via Skype with a credentialed candidate in another country.  While I would like to believe that the purpose may have been to determine if the individual had done her research about the area, I knew by the intonation of the question and knowledge of the panel member, that he wondered why someone would want to work with a diverse population, comprised of over 75 languages, in an area of increasing poverty.  The intent of the question made my heart sink.

Instantly I reflected upon my move last year to the Seattle area.  My wife and I had limited time to find a home and had no knowledge of the different communities up and down the I-5 corridor from Tacoma to Seattle.  I asked many people, all in education or with children attending local schools, to recommend a community where we could raise our four children.  To my surprise, my inquiries yielded, instead, a list of areas to avoid.

“Stay away from Tacoma.” 

“You don’t want to live in Kent.”

“I wouldn’t recommend Federal Way.” 

“What ever you do, don’t live in White Center.”

What would happen if I, as an educator, shared the same perception of students that some people do about where these same students come from and the communities that they represent?  It seems to me that the best teachers and leaders don’t derogate someone else’s school and community or waste time complaining about their own.  Instead, they take action, as the grass is always greener where it’s watered.  Instead of admiring the problem, they become part of the solution.  Actions express priority, and top educators make where they are the place to be!

What I appreciate about every community that I’ve come to know is the common denominator that they share – students who need equity driven champions in the form of positive, caring, instructionally sound teachers and administrators.  Why would someone want to work in an area of increasing poverty and high diversity?  I answer that question by sharing that poverty is not a sickness and being diverse is not a challenge to overcome.  Champions don’t operate from a deficit perspective, and, instead, they recognize that there are profound strengths and extensive intellectual potential in all students, especially when it comes to those who live in generational poverty or experience cultural trauma.

As an educator, it’s my charge to be a keeper of hope, without relying on hope as a strategy for success. I must be positive, showing love and concern to all students, without lowering expectations or loving them to mediocrity.  I must exercise the power to change lives and impact futures through what I believe and do.  All means all, whether I live in Burien, Tacoma, Kent, Federal Way, or White Center, and I owe it to all students to make where I am the place to be.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Playing With Dolls

I recently had the good fortune to meet with, Lisa Brandenburg, the president of Seattle Children’s Hospital.  As we spoke in her office, I noticed six dolls of differing sizes across the room on a shelf behind her desk. I inquired as to whether they were matroyoshkas (or nesting dolls), referring to the wooden dolls of decreasing size that are placed one inside the other. I was curious as to their significance to her, as nesting dolls always remind me of how we, as educators, must come together to encircle each student with the emotional, social, and academic supports necessary for them to succeed in school and in life.

Lisa then generously took some of her precious time to educate me, as I became her student. She told me that the dolls were actually Japanese Daruma dolls - symbols of good luck - and explained how the round meditating silhouettes of Bodhidharma (credited with establishing Zen Buddhism in Japan and Chan Buddhism in China) are commonly used to set goals and inspire commitment. She pointed out that the eyes of the colorful dolls are are not painted, as the coloring of them is part of the goal-setting and goal-completion process - one eye is painted when a goal is set and the other is painted when the goal is achieved. 

I also learned that Daruma dolls, usually made of papier-mâché, are normally weighted at the bottom in order to return to an upright position when tilted over. This characteristic shows perseverance and shares a connection to the Japanese proverb: 七転び八起き – Fall down seven times, stand up eight. As I thought about the words used to describe the doll – luck, commitment, and perseverance – it became apparent that commitment and perseverance, which we can control, make "luck" possible. This short conversation in the office of the hospital president ultimately sparked additional reflection on the following leadership steps to goal achievement:  
  • Intentionally select your team / collaborate – There are informal and formal leaders in every school – make sure that you empower those with multiple perspectives while moving the cause forward.  Remember John Wooden’s sage counsel to, “Whatever you to in life, surround yourself with smart people who’ll argue with you.”
  • Clearly Communicate your vision – While the plan to achieve the goal is not predetermined, the vision must be communicated for momentum to build. Reverend Theodore Hesburgh noted, “The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” 
  • Collectively Set Goals – Ownership can be a “me thing” or a “we thing.”  While the former gets results faster, the latter gets the results you want.  Modern day motivator, Tony Robbins, shared his perspective by pointing out that, “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible visible,” as goal-setting provides short-term motivation in working toward long-term results. 
  • Willfully Commit to Achievement – Many successful teachers work with each class at the beginning of each year to collectively develop class norms, and students show their commitment to the rules by signing the finalized posted version.  Similarly, principals often inform team members that each will need to sign off on the school action plan as work begins.  Taking a stand and showing commitment is an important step toward increasing collective focus toward achieving a goal. Leaders must distinguish between interest and commitment - interest wanes, but commitment endures.
  • Actively Persevere – Challenges will arise and the path to success may be difficult; however, this is when mindset matters most and tenacity triumphs.  (After all, if accomplishing a difficult goal were easy, then everyone would do it.)  Be a leader who inspires the team and tips the scale from desperation and discouragement to dedication and determination.
  • Sincerely Celebrate – At the end of each year, traditional Daruma dolls are brought back to the temple where they were purchased. Gratitude is expressed and they are set on fire in a ceremony.  Consider how you announce and celebrate completion of goals, both large and small.  While you may not burn the actual school improvement plan, acknowledgement and celebration of even small objectives demonstrate sincere appreciation and can spark a lasting fire in the hearts of team members.

As Lisa concluded her tutorial, she took one of the hollow, red dolls off of the shelf and showed me how one eye had been colored in to represent the goal that had been set months earlier. She turned the doll around and displayed the signatures of her team members, which affirmed the commitment of each to achieve the common goal written on the bottom of the figure. With a energized lilt in her voice, Lisa declared that her team was close to achieving their common objective, and she would soon color in the other eye. I realized how fortunate it was for me that a select team from Seattle Children's Hospital had visited Japan to learn collaboratively with colleagues abroad - a trip that would unknowingly impact my life and expand my perspective.